Basketball Newcomers, Returners and Who to Watch
The stage is set for Athletes Unlimited Basketball Season 2.
With the 44-athlete roster locked in, projections for who will stand atop the podium, don a medal, and be crowned champion can begin.
The 21 returners enter the season familiar with AU’s unique format: changing teams weekly, the leaderboard system, and an intense playing schedule. As for the newcomers, they’ll be charged with learning to navigate the AU system and battle their way up the ranking.
Ty Young, Lexie Brown, Essence Carson, Kelsey Mitchell, Natasha Cloud, Courtney Williams, Taj Cole, Rebecca Harris, Kirby Burkholder, DiJonai Carrington, Jessica Kuster, Akela Maize, Antoinette Bannister, Sydney Colson, Danni McCray, Air Hearn, MeMe Jackson, Destinee Walker, CC Andrews, Odyssey Sims, Isabelle Harrison
Top 10 Leaderboard Returners
- #2 Natasha Cloud
- #3 Isabelle Harrison
- #4 Lexie Brown
- #6 Odyssey Sims
- #7 DiJonai Carrington
- #9 Courtney Williams
- #10 Taj Cole
Underdog to watch: Kelsey Mitchell
It feels remiss to call Kelsey Mitchell an underdog considering she consistently dominated during season one but her spot at #11 on the final leaderboard could leave her overlooked.
She fell out of the top 10 due to missing four games in 2022; she briefly left to compete with USA Basketball at the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournament. Imagine with the stat points — and assuming MVP points too — from starting in a full 15 games, where she might have landed.
Even still, she was the fourth-leading scorer in the league and only behind champion Tianna Hawkins for total MVP points with 540. Mitchell reached double figures in scoring during her 11 games, including five outings with 20 or more points plus a pair of 30-point performances.
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Prediction for top captain in 2023: Lexie Brown
Just three athletes had winning records as captains in season 1: champion Tianna Hawkins (7-2), Lexie Brown (6-3) and DiJonai Carrington (3-0).
Isabelle Harrison was close as a four-time captain with a .500 winning percentage (6-6).
If Brown enters into the top four and finds herself a captain again, expect her to manage the role well. Last season she welcomed the challenge and responsibility of drafting and managing her own team. In fact, she preferred to be at the helm.
She tied for first in quarters won (earning 1,700 points in the category). Athletes who are able to embrace captainship give themselves the chance to influence their own success, especially when it comes to win points.
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NaLyssa Smith, Jordin Canada, Whitney Knight, Lexie Hull, Karisma Penn, Kristi Bellock, G’mrice Davis, Crystal Bradford, Suriya McGuire, Caliya Robinson, Layshia Clarendon, Naz Hillmon, Allisha Gray, Evina Westbrook, N’dea Jones, Jenna Staiti, Veronica Burton, Theresa Plaisance, Jasmine Walker, Kierstan Bell, Lydia Rivers, Hope Elam, Mya Hollingshed
Newcomer to watch: Allisha Gray
When asking the roster of 44 who they’re most excited to play with this season, Allisha Gray’s name was continuously said. It’s no surprise that the 2017 WNBA Rookie of the Year and 2020 Olympic Gold Medalist is a favorite – she is one of the most anticipated athletes of the season. Gray’s high motor allows her to run the floor on both sides of the ball. While she is definitely a sufficient scorer, it’s the dirty work that usually can go overlooked that the AU Hoops scoring system rewards.
Rookie on the radar: NaLyssa Smith
NaLyssa Smith is rounding out her first year as a pro with Athletes Unlimited after playing for the Indiana Fever in the 2022 WNBA season. She had to take on a heavy role with the Fever as a rookie; she played and started in 32 games and averaged 30 minutes. She was the leading rebounder and second-leading scoring for her squad with an average of 13.5 points per game.
Not only can she finish around the rim, but Smith said on media day that her perimeter game has also grown a lot in the past year: “I’ve never shot so many threes in my life.” Her dynamic game lends her to pick up stat points in multiple categories (in particular, shooting and rebounds).
Scrimmage Standout: Naz Hillmon
After two days of scrimmages in the preseason, Naz Hillmon‘s performance in both games stood out. In Team Mitchell vs. Team Andrews, she shot 8-for-10 with 19 total points and 11 rebounds. She put up nine points in the second scrimmage in addition to six rebounds.
Her size combined with her adept handles allows her to be a dynamic part of an offense. She was drafted in the second round of the draft by Courtney Williams with the seventh overall pick.
In order to predict who might be the 2023 Champion, the best place to look is who was crowned in season one: Tianna Hawkins.
Clearly, she balled on the floor all season long: she led the league in several different statistical categories, including total rebounds, defensive rebounds and double-doubles. She was the only athlete to post a 700-point performance – and she did it three times.
But it’s not solely stat points that set the champion apart. The point category that often lets champions pull away and lock in the No. 1 spot on the final leaderboard is MVP points.
MVP points are voted on by the players and members of The Unlimited Club after every game. Based on standout performances, they can earn MVP 1: +90 points, MVP 2: +60 points, MVP 3: +30 points.
Out of the eight championship seasons played in Athletes Unlimited history across all sports, five champions have led in MVP points.
Hawkins was ahead of her chaser, Natasha Cloud, by 240 points in the MVP category.
Point system changes in 2023
There is one change to the AU Basketball scoring system heading into the second season. The points earned for a game win have been increased from 100 to 150.
This is to put more value on game wins than quarter wins. Winning a quarter will still result in 50 points earned for each member of the team. This change will also result in game wins holding a higher percentage of each athlete’s win points at the conclusion of their season.
Tune in to the Athletes Unlimited Preview Show on Thursday, Feb. 23 at 5:45 p.m. ET / 4:45 p.m. CT on YouTube. Then, Team Williams and Team Sims get the season started at 6 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. CT on WNBA League Pass.
Savanna Collins is the Digital Media Reporter at Athletes Unlimited. You can follow her on Twitter @savannaecollins.
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